By Lisa Readie Mayer
It’s been more than 30 years since Ed Fisher first introduced his quirky green kamado cooker to America. In that time, Big Green Egg has enjoyed unparalleled and uninterrupted sales growth, fending off an onslaught of new competitors, and the proliferation of modern, high-tech, app-enabled grills. It also survived and thrived after a change in leadership six years ago, when founder Fisher tapped new CEO and managing director, Ardy Arani, to guide the company into the future.
Arani credits Big Green Egg’s success to a quality product, superior customer service, and a 4,000-strong, top-notch dealer base, supplemented by a legion of passionate fans that acts as a grassroots salesforce. It doesn’t hurt that, in addition to the grills – now available in seven sizes – the company is a prolific producer of accessories and accoutrements, procured in extraordinary quantities by the faithful, to ensure an ongoing source of revenue long after the initial EGG sale.
Even as the Big Green Egg gains the consumer awareness to move it into the mainstream, it remains hip, cool, and counter-cultural. Somehow, after three decades, this odd-looking, charcoal-fueled, bells-and-whistles-free appliance is still considered a trendy “new” grill for the multitudes that “discover” it each year.
That “It Factor” has helped the company score countless marketing and promotional opportunities, ranging from NASCAR to music concerts to celebrity cooking shows, enabling it to reach a broader audience and wider demographic than a typical small-company marketing budget would allow. Big Green Egg’s success is a model for the industry and, in many respects, is the envy of the industry as well.
Hearth & Home caught up with Ardy Arani to discuss what got the company to where it is today, and to look ahead at where it’s going.
Hearth & Home: First, how is Ed Fisher doing? Is he still active in the company?
Ardy Arani: “Ed is about as spry as I’ve ever seen him. I talk to him all the time because he has a unique perspective on the industry that spans decades. He’s not involved in the day-to-day happenings at the company, but he’s in and out of the Culinary Center all the time for classes and events.”
You don’t have a barbecue industry background. What prepared you when you started six years ago as CEO?
Arani: “Ed saw this as a business built around grilling and the EGG. But through our friendship and conversations over the years, it dawned on me that Big Green Egg is really a lifestyle company. In my previous career I was involved in high-level sports promotion and marketing, and there are a lot of parallels.
“Whether people are interested in a sport, music or cultural pursuit, they develop passions around it. That’s exactly what Big Green Egg is all about – the camaraderie and shared experiences with friends, family and like-minded people.”
Tell us more about the idea of positioning the company as a lifestyle brand.
Arani: “We consider our company to be a full-blown marketing and creative services agency for our one ‘client,’ the Big Green Egg. While most companies farm out things like creative services, publishing and marketing communications, we have a robust team that is able to take on all these tasks under one roof to reach our multiple audiences – dealers, consumers and chefs.
“This gives us great control over our brand and content, and gives us the ability to react quickly and nimbly to marketing opportunities and to dealers’ and consumers’ needs all over the world. We have created a platform for exceptional people to continue to grow this great company.”
You describe yourself as an aberrant thinker. It would seem that this approach is an example of that different kind of thinking. True?
Arani: “The phrase ‘thinking out of the box’ is a cliché, but as a brand and company, we try to avoid plodding ahead under the status quo. We are the best-in-category in terms of size, market share, and length of time in business, but every day we need to look forward to the future and that sometimes means looking at things differently.
“One thing we emphasize here: Do not be afraid to propose an idea. We have an in-house design and R&D team that painstakingly and extensively tries and tests new concepts, products and features. Many of them never see the light of day, and that’s okay. But the process of considering and testing it might have taught us something we didn’t know before, or might lead to another idea.
“Another thing we emphasize is that it’s okay every once in a while to just sit still, close your eyes, and think. Being an aberrant thinker is not just about coming up with crazy ideas. It’s the flexibility to think differently, to imagine and create, and that philosophy is supported here.”
|Big Green Egg demo in the Netherlands at the European Flavor Fair.|
Is it fair to say that Big Green Egg dealers are aberrant thinkers, too? Many seem to be very progressive when it comes to promotion and marketing.
Arani: “The retail world is changing. Successful dealers know they must be much more than a storefront with products on the shelves and a cash register. Many of our dealers have embraced the world of ‘Grilltainment.’ They are engaging customers by lighting the grill, cooking and sampling for six or seven hours on Saturdays and Sundays. They’re doing demos and holding cooking classes. They put our 12-foot-tall inflatable Egghead character out front. The dealers who engage customers sell a much higher volume of product than dealers who don’t. There’s value to it.”
We’re seeing some brands of kamados in Big Box stores. Do you think the category is ready for that?
Arani: “This category requires salespeople who really understand the product, who can educate the consumer, and demo the ease of use. Developing a sense of camaraderie and shared experience helps to build customer relationships and positions salespeople as a trusted resource for questions and suggestions.
“Salespeople can also address potential objections to the price by pointing out the quality, lifetime support and versatility. This kind of attention is best provided at the dealer level. There is no way a Big Box store can do what a dealer can do.”
What sets the best dealers apart?
Arani: “This product requires that salespeople know a lot to be an asset to the customer. It’s not enough to tell how thick the ceramic is or about the hinges. It’s much more effective when a salesperson genuinely embraces and enjoys the lifestyle and can say, ‘Let me tell you about the lasagna I cooked in the EGG,’ or talk about making pizza, or roasting or baking. To facilitate this, we offer programs where employees can qualify for product discounts so they can own their own EGG and be able to talk about it from experience. The best dealers encourage this.”
How many dealers do you have now?
Arani: “We have well over 4,000 dealers worldwide. We are now in 50 countries. We are in South Africa and New Zealand and Australia where barbecuing is already part of the culture and lifestyle. And we are in some surprising places like Iceland, which is remarkable. This sometimes happens because an international chef will discover the EGG and introduce it in their restaurant.”
|Instructor holding class at the Big Green Egg Culinary Center.|
Your website actually lists quite a number of restaurants that use the EGG. Is this a growing area for you? How are chefs using it?
Arani: “We are in thousands of restaurants around the world and that presence is growing. Some places might have one MiniMax on the cooktop; some have two or three of our MiniMax in the kitchen and Large or Xtra-large EGGs out back. The flavor profile the EGG provides essentially becomes an ingredient in the dish. We are humbled by the number of Michelin-starred chefs and restaurants that use and embrace the EGG. Product quality and consistency is very important to them. They need to reliably replicate dishes day in and day out.”
Would Big Green Egg ever open a branded restaurant?
Arani: (Laughing) “I want to go on record that you didn’t even get the question out of your mouth before I emphatically said, No! We don’t need our name on a restaurant. We do what we do best.”
So your new Culinary Center is as close as you’re going to get to a restaurant. Why did you want to open it?
Arani: “When Porsche built its new headquarters down the road from us, what was the first thing they built? A test track to do demos and dealer test drives. Same idea here. We are in the culinary lifestyle business, so when we were building our new headquarters it was important to include a state-of-the-art culinary center.
“It’s like a Food Network set to host dealer training, chefs, the media, food bloggers, and the public. We can hold 15 to 18 people for a hands-on class, and 75 for seminars or demos. The space is also used by corporations for private events, team building, and customer entertainment.”
You mentioned food bloggers. How does social media fit in your marketing?
Arani: “Social media has grown so much. We use Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter. We provide simple, useful and easy-to-access information over all platforms to engage consumers in a fun way. We create our own radio and TV podcasts in-house, so someone can watch a quick step-by-step tutorial and, in a few short snippets, see what ingredients they need and how to make a dish.
“We want to catch someone who might be thinking about what to make for dinner tonight, and deliver solutions quickly and conveniently with a couple of clicks or swipes in an entertaining way.”
If you can reach thousands with a social media post, are your Eggtoberfest and Eggfest events still as important to connect with consumers?
Arani: “Eggtoberfests and Eggfests celebrate the fan base that is a big part of the culture and personality of the brand. It’s hard to believe this will be our 19th Eggtoberfest. It has grown so much since the first one in the parking lot with maybe a dozen people. Today, we cap capacity at under 5,000 attendees and limit the number of cooks to 250.
“We want people to have the ability to talk to the cooks about how they made something, and sample the great versatility of the dishes prepared. We’ve brought in chefs from around the world to showcase the EGG in different international cuisines. Eggtoberfest is still so popular that online registration for cooks fills up within 24 hours, and for attendees in a matter of weeks.”
|Eggtoberfest in Atlanta, Georgia, with inflatable Mr. Egghead.|
How many dealer-run Eggfests are there now?
Arani: “Eggtoberfest has been a model and a springboard for 60 local, annual Eggfest events in the U.S. Some of them draw 3,000 to 4,000 attendees. There are also a number held internationally, including a huge Eggfest in Holland. Everyone is coming together to celebrate the EGG, share food, and embrace the culture.”
The company has tied in with concerts, auto racing, professional sport fishing, high-profile celebrity chefs, and more. How are you able to secure such wide-reaching marketing opportunities?
Arani: “I’m not going to name drop, but we regularly work with celebrities from the worlds of entertainment, fashion, sports, media, music, food and even late-night TV talk show hosts. Word has gotten around that we are very responsive, and we consider it an honor when these people reach out to us.
“But, it’s important to know that when these requests come in, although the promise to provide product happens on a corporate level, it’s often our amazing distributors and dealers who jump through hoops to deliver it. These deliveries can be very complicated, but our dealers have a can-do attitude and love to solve problems and make it happen.”
What kind of return do you get from these tie-ins?
Arani: “We have no paid endorsers. The celebrities who genuinely believe in and use the product often end up posting about it on social media, and that kind of endorsement is valuable. If they tweet about something they cooked in the Big Green Egg, it’s because they want to. It’s extremely organic the way things evolve, but it’s more believable that way and it shows.”
Big Green Egg has been very good at identifying food and lifestyle trends and introducing products and accessories that tie into them. What can we expect in the future?
Arani: “There are so many places we look to see where consumers’ interests are trending – industrial design shows, food shows, other industry shows. An example is when we saw pizza-making trending some years back. We wanted to clearly communicate that the EGG is an outstanding pizza oven, and we developed the accessories and recipes to support it. Giving people the tools to make thin and crispy pizza or deep-dish pizza, and showing them how to do it, creates an ‘ah-ha’ moment where they say, ‘I never knew I could make this on a grill!’
“Today we see the organic, natural, farm-to-table movement making huge strides, so we are going out of our way to communicate with that audience. We tell the EGG’s quality and product-origin story, and convey that the fuel and firestarters are completely pure, all-natural, and chemical-free.”
Any final thoughts to share?
Arani: “Everything we’ve discussed has been important to the success of Big Green Egg, but the number-one impact on growing EGG passion and sales over the years is the quality of the product. You can use and enjoy it for the rest of your life and we will stand behind it with no-questions-asked customer support.
“Our dealers embrace their customers as collaborative partners, sharing ideas and igniting the passion in our fan base, which is such a big part of the EGG culture. All of this combined is the reason for our continued growth and success.”